31 Days of Horror: Film 18: Chopping Mall (1986)

It’s time for the 31 Days of Horror: 2014 Edition. For those of you who weren’t around for last year’s journey, the plan is to watch at least 31 horror movies I’ve never seen before and review them all. So sit back, strap in, and enjoy my journey down the rabbit hole.

I’ll admit it, Chopping Mall is a big hunk of ‘80s cheese. The plot is silly and largely play-by-the-numbers. The film is rooted in a time when most people still had no idea what computers were and were not capable of, meaning it has aged gracelessly. But it’s not the plot or the silly technological ideas that I noticed in the film. Instead, I saw an intentionally goofy movie that poked fun at its own premise and dropped in playful inside jokes for film geeks.

A high-tech security system is installed in a shopping mall. The system consists of three robots that patrol the mall and are programmed to detain after hours intruders who don’t have the proper identification. Not surprisingly, the robots malfunction, turning into a trio of killing machines. The robots target a group of college kids having an after work party in a furniture store. While the group fights and/or flees in terror, the robots pick them off one by one.

And that’s your movie—don’t strain yourself looking for a deep subtext.

The fun to be had in Chopping Mall comes from the little things on the periphery of the plot. Dick Miller hams it up in a cameo as an older version of Walter Paisley, his character from Roger Corman’s A Bucket of Blood. Paul Bartel and Mary Woronov reprise their roles from Eating Raoul and rip off some great one-liners while acting as a Greek Chorus commenting on the plot in an early scene. Co-writer/director Jim Wynorski engages in some gratuitous gore with a terrific exploding head scene. A character, in a rare moment of safety, takes the time to calculate just how much the damage they are doing to the mall will financially set them back.

The killer robots plot was almost certainly inspired by The Terminator, but it’s interesting to note their surprising resemblance to the central robot from Short Circuit, which was released just two months after Chopping Mall. As a supposed safety feature that malfunctions and kills innocent people, the plot also points to the early scenes of the malfunctioning robotic security system in Robocop which was released a year later. No one in their right mind would call Chopping Mall prescient, but Wynorski was savvy enough to tap into a popular emerging trend to make what is essentially a typical slasher movie stand out.

Wynorski drops in an obligatory nod to Dawn of the Dead and casts ‘80s scream queen favorites Kelli Maroney and Barbara Crampton as two of the potential victims. Combined with the casting of Miller, Bartel, Woronov, and the use of Angus Scrimm as an extra, Chopping Mall starts to feel a little like a very specialized six degrees of separation game.

Perhaps the most surprising thing to me about the film is how slick it is. The acting is competent, it’s quickly paced, and the production values are decent as large sections of an obviously functioning mall are destroyed. Some of the effects have dated, but they have done so in a way that feels old-fashioned and not cheesy. If Chopping Mall serves no other purpose, it does show that the prolific Wynorski, who devolved into helming SyFy Channel original movies, was capable of putting together a fun, clever, and well-made movie when he put in the effort.

Don’t go into the film expecting a work of art. Chopping Mall is still an exploitation movie with gratuitous nudity and violence. But it is better than a lot of films of its time and genre. Wynorski invests the film with some wit and there is a good time to be had with the inside jokes and film references. Maybe that doesn’t sound like a ringing endorsement, but with a film that had the potential to be a derivative mess, context is everything.

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2 thoughts on “31 Days of Horror: Film 18: Chopping Mall (1986)

  1. Wonder if this was in the minds of the people responsible for the Doctor Who serial Paradise Towers? Like Chopping Mall,it featured killer robots somewhat similar to the film’s,but with cringe inducing goofy looks of that particula r season of Sylvester McCoy’s incarnation of the Doctor. It did air a year after Chopping Mall,probably not long after the film either finished its British run or during it. Hmmm….:) Possible-wouldn’t be the first time a non US scifi show mimicked the plot of an American movie. The Bobby Don’t Become a Monster/Tragic Genius Monster Noman two part episode of Spectreman was obviously a tokusatsu take on the plot of the film Charly.

    • Afraid I’ve never seen an episode of Doctor Who, so I can’t say whether or not I think they took inspiration from Chopping Mall. But there were a lot of films that dealt with supposedly helpful/peaceful robots turning violent toward humans around that time. I already mentioned the malfunctioning robot in Robocop in the review, but there was also Runaway and Westworld that explored some similar material to the killer robots from Chopping Mall. It seemed to be a recurring theme in horror and sci-fi in the late ’70s-mid ’80s.

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